Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play
Imagine a catastrophic failure of technology: the electrical grid shuts down, leading to malfunctioning nuclear reactors and widespread fires, and followed by widespread deaths. When survivors manage to find each other, what stories will they tell to keep despair at bay?
In Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, receiving its world premiere at Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, playwright Anne Washburn examines the alchemy that can blend pop culture ephemera into a new, lasting form of artistic expression. The work is sometimes unwieldy in its conflation of tragedy and farcenot to mention songs by Michael Friedmanbut it's compulsively watchable and well acted.
As the title suggests, the animated humor and satire of "The Simpsons" are the primary element, but another component is songs from the decades before things go wrong. Even the light operas of Sir William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan find their way into the story, thanks to a "Simpsons" connection.
The first of three brief acts finds six people in an outdoor setting, huddled around a fire in an oil barrel, sitting on scavenged pieces of furniture. Matt (Steve Rosen), their dominating leader, recounts his memories of the "Simpsons" episode "Cape Feare" (a parody of the 1962 movie Cape Fear and its 1991 remake). The othersColleen (Amy McWilliams), Maria (Jenna Sokolowski), Jenny (Kimberly Gilbert), Quincy (Erika Rose) and Sam (James Sugg)add whatever details they can recall, and a new arrival, Gibson (Chris Genebach), brings word of the outside world.
The second act builds upon the first: seven years have passed and the survivors have formed a theater company that performs "Simpsons" episodes in an abandoned warehouse. They even create commercials based on their memories of life as it used to be (private homes, working in an office, hot water for baths, glasses of wine). The third act takes this development to its logical (if absurd) conclusion: after another 75 years, "Simpsons" re-enactments have become a traditional art form, an updated version of the medieval morality play.
Director Steven Cosson worked closely with his New York-based company The Civilians and Washburn to create the play, although Woolly Mammoth is presenting the first full production. He benefits from a solid ensemble of actors who can also sing, along with Misha Kachman's fascinating scenic design (with a three-dimensional, handcrafted look) and lighting design by Colin K. Bills that picks up on the emotional undercurrents of the play.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company